NASA recently awarded a $330,000 grant to the University of Akron to look into using the Ethereum blockchain and artificial intelligence to help with controlling spacecraft in the dynamic environment of space. The grant refers to a “resilient networking and computing paradigm” based on “decentralized computing infrastructure” that is capable of using fuzzy logic and deep learning techniques to cope with unforeseen hazards in space.
What Can A Blockchain-AI System Do differently from Humans?
Previously, spacecraft have only been saved from unforeseen circumstances by human judgment. When Mariner 9 arrived at Mars, it was programmed to go into orbit and wait for instructions before continuing its descent to the surface. In this way, Mariner 9 was instrumental in discovering the massive dust storms that can spread across the entire Martian surface and also had a hand in discovering Olympus Mons because it was one of only a few surface features that were tall enough to peek out from the dust storm.
Martian dust storms rarely get quite as bad as what was seen in the The Martian, but as the Soviets found out when they tried to send probes to Mars at the same time, attempting to land a probe in a dust storm is a good way to lose it. The Soviets never bothered to program Mars 2 to let humans make the final decision about going for landing, and it crashed because it wasn’t programmed to account for a dust storm. Oops! This is what happens when a dumb robot is programmed to follow a sequence rather than account for potentially hazardous conditions or stop and wait for feedback if it runs across an unexpected condition.
It probably didn’t help the Soviets that it can take up to 40 minutes to send a radio signal to Mars and get a reply. Perhaps a natural question would be, “Why not have humans on the scene so that they can make the decisions without having such a terrible time lag in communications?” That is not an unfair question, considering that the Curiosity rover might take three months to do what a human could do in a week.
In the absence of a space station in Mars orbit, however, perhaps a blockchain-based AI system could handle at least some of the decisions that need to be made on the spot, like maneuvering to avoid hazardous debris. An AI capable of deep learning will be able to draw on past experience to figure out how to react to new events that have some similarities to obstacles that it may have faced before.
Because the Ethereum blockchain may be included in this future AI, it will be able to automatically back up its files to other spacecraft on the same blockchain and re-download them if an event wipes out parts of its memory. While it may be handy to have a human with a fix-it shop on hand if a probe runs into that kind of situation, it would also mean that scientific data might not be completely lost if a scientific probe suffers the effects of a coronal mass ejection aimed straight at it — though Dr. Jen Wei did mention that the project could help “develop technology that can recognize environmental threats and avoid them.” It would simply be backed up by every other spacecraft that has a copy of the blockchain and transmitted back to Earth as soon as possible.
Who Is Working On This NASA Collaboration?
Dr. Jen Wei is an associate professor at the University of Akron’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and will be spearheading this project. The grant comes from NASA’s Glenn Research Center as part of the space agency’s Space Technology Research Grants (STRG).
“I am honored that NASA recognized my work, and I am excited to continue challenging technology’s ability to think and do on its own,” Wei said of the news that her team had received the grant.
Thomas Kacpura manages the Advanced Communications Program at NASA Glenn Research Center. This is the first time that NASA has considered blockchain applications for space exploration, but he recognized blockchain’s potential for helping to manage the distributed networks that will be necessary for sustained travel to other planets and possibly other stars.
“If successful, the overall objective will be to incorporate Dr. Wei’s research in our overall portfolio to ultimately optimize our communication networks,” he told ETH News.
Bitcoin To The Moon – And Then Mars?
If a project like this succeeds, then blockchain and cryptocurrencies could be taken to the Moon, Mars and beyond as part of the economic and technological infrastructure that will be vital to a sustainable and growing expansion to other planets and star systems.
It will take centuries to see the full potential of blockchain come to fruition as an integrated part of interplanetary society. However, not only is NASA is starting to get the ball rolling with projects like this, but new projects like SpaceChain, which recently launched a Qtum node into low Earth orbit, are also recognizing the ways that cryptocurrencies can benefit from space-related efforts.